Julian, sheriff of the northern highlands, watched as the last stumbling captive was forced to kneel in front of him, knees pressed tight against the dais. After a nod to the guards and then the rest of his men ranged about the benches set along the brightly painted walls of the castle great hall, he glared at the huddled figure with savage satisfaction.
“Not so haughty today, are we, boy?”
The ragged, bloodied captive cringed, his pale, skinny arms scrabbling against the dais as if pleading. Julian watched with cold humor. Why should he show mercy when the outlaws had not? “How does it feel to be enslaved? The tables are turned, the dice fallen badly for you. It is not pleasant, is it?”
He told himself he did not care if he mocked the callous creature. Young as he was, underfed as he was, the boy was an outlaw, a slaver. He deserved all he got. But so young, so young to be corrupted—
Frowning, Julian drummed his fingers on the table, then on the arms of his great chair. He and his men had found the outlaw camp before dawn that morning. After hard fighting, they had destroyed that adders’ nest and freed the slaves within it, a dozen or more filthy, bedraggled little wretches, men and women alike. Freed but dazed, dumb and obedient as cattle, the survivors were being still in the bailey yard, being coaxed into eating, drinking, and bathing. His men had pitched tents to house them until the poor creatures’ families, or the church, came for them. Now Julian was dealing with the outlaws themselves and their hangers-on, including this one, rumored to be the catamite of the outlaw leader.
Julian glowered at the thought of him, a Viking calling himself Olaf the Strong. The brute had certainly been a screamer, both before and after Julian had fought and skewered him. Olaf the once-strong was dead, and this final captive had been his lover.
Julian scowled again, a lurking headache creeping up his skull to hammer the backs of his eyes. I know I will dream tonight of killing Olaf. That was no hardship, but Julian knew his own dreams. Instead of a bloody triumph it would be a nightmare. He would see Olaf on his knees, pleading for his life, screaming for mercy, pitiful and terrified as a child. The castle priest had told him he dreamed this way because he was a Christian. Sometimes Julian wished he was pagan.
And this last prisoner … Despite his instructions, Tom, his under-reeve, would bring the prisoners up in irons, even skinny, trembling scraps like this one. Fighting down a hot blast of red rage, Julian gripped his sword hilt to stop himself from punching his second-in-command and rose from his chair to approach the small, chained figure. Remember, no matter how slight he is, this creature is your enemy, a filthy slaver.
“Name?” he snapped. The boy shook so violently that his fetters clashed and sparked against the dais, but said nothing. Stubborn fool. Julian’s shorter second hastened to answer.
“She was found in Olaf’s hut, my lord, cowering by the doorway. I do not know her name.”
She? In a whirl of his scarlet cloak, Julian leapt forward and dragged the prisoner aloft by a handful of hair. He shook her with the force of his hold. “Your name!”
This close, he was astonished at his own blindness. Very far from a catamite, despite the rumor. Under the dirt and blood, the girl was delicate, with a fragile profile, sweetly upcurving lips, and masses of matted but soft black hair. Silent and pliant despite what must be his painful grip, she stood on the tips of her toes, turned a little aside from him, her head bowed. He could not yet see her eyes, but she was both graceful and slender—too slender, really, but he would change that.
Beware, Julian. Just because the wench is female does not mean she is not vicious. Do not let her beguile you.
Yet, by all that was holy, how had he missed her sex?
A breathy, sobbing wheeze close to his ear reminded him that she had yet to answer and that warned him anew of who she was. This girl had seen him fight and cut down her lover, but she remained dry-eyed, with no track of moisture on her pallid urchin’s face. A snap of anger exploded afresh through Julian, sharpening the throbbing ache in his head. Doubtless she is thoroughly hardened. She cannot spare even a single tear for her dead lord.
Julian hissed through his teeth. Somewhere close he sensed the under-reeve backing away, heard the nervous shuffles of his men in the hall beyond. With a conscious effort, he relaxed his grip and the girl sank off her tip-toes, trembling slightly. What are her shudders to me?
He knew he was harsh, unsmiling in his manner. Since his sweet Sara had died two winters ago, leaving him a widower and bereft, he had been unable to be anything but indifferent-cold or angry-hot to anyone. And he had no interest in brief affairs. I witnessed too much heartbreak from my father and his parade of mistresses to do anything like the same. Although this girl—
Part of him looked forward to breaking her.
Now he was looking at her properly, he realized that he wanted her, wanted her badly, with a raw force he had not experienced since he was a squire. Is it the chains? The fact she is mine, by right of conquest?
Oddly for a war-lord’s mistress, she was dressed in rags, a mud-colored gown so tattered he had mistaken it for trews, a dirt-spattered, travel-stained tunic, and a threadbare cloak. Her rough leather shoes were splitting at the seams and looked too small for her. Her bare arms were dark with bruises. There was crusted blood at the corner of her mouth and a fading palm print on her left cheek. Another burst of anger scorched through him.
“Who handled you thus, girl?” He did not like his men brutalizing prisoners, since it made for poor discipline and bullies. And what of your own rough handling of her, eh, Julian? Is that well done by you? “Tell me,” he said, in a softer voice.
Slowly, her small dark head raised a little and she peeped a look at him before swiftly lowering her face again.
If she smiles at me I will be lost, and yes, I would certainly like to chain her to my bed.
“Speak,” he ordered.
The girl huddled her arms across herself and made a strange gasping noise.
“Perhaps she has lost her tongue,” Tom offered, but the girl shook her head.
“You are mute?” Julian demanded. He watched closely and was rewarded with a tiny nod. “Have you always been mute?” he went on, and this time the girl shook her head.
“Pity we do not know her name,” Tom remarked, and the girl blushed.
“That is as maybe,” Julian growled. What has happened to her to make her lose her speech?